The Bones of a City

What makes us know a city inside out?

Paris, with its catacombs, the Bastille, the sexy Metro.

London: Big Ben, the Tube, Carnaby Street in the ’60s.

Vienna, high architecture and Spanish horses, the big wheel in the Prater turning slowly, forever.

All three of them underpinned by big modern sewer systems you can track The Third Man through, or a Spoonsize Boy.

The Spoonsize Boys - Illustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm
The Spoonsize BoysIllustration for Tim Powers: The Anubis Gates (c) Dirk Berger at The Art of Light and Storm

What makes a city so memorable – and what makes it like nothing else on earth?

I’m intrigued by this for a number of reasons. I may not be about to list them all…

First, the sheer amount of stories set in particular cities which dominate all other locations. I’ve mentioned this before.

Second, I’d like to work out how that influence is constructed. Does the foggy London of Sherlock Holmes arise from the pages of Conan Doyle, or early-morning film productions in the misty hills of 1930s Hollywood? Or even weirder, from the smogs of Edinburgh’s Old Town where Robert Louis Stevenson set Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde?

Third, once I’ve worked this out, how do I produce it in my own writing?

How do I build a city magnificent enough to carry and hold its own myths?


The question first pushed itself to the forefront of my mind in 2019, after reading Glasgow belongs to us – a Guardian article on the Alasdair Gray novel, “Lanark”.

Now, I loathed the book. I only read it after Gray died, and I finished it in much the same way I persevered with Moby Dick – read it once, so I’ll never have to read it again, and can own my loathing as a gift of that perseverance.

But in the words of Janice Galloway, who wrote the article I came across after Gray’s death, quoting from the novel itself:

“Glasgow is a magnificent city,” said McAlpin. “Why do we hardly ever notice that?”
“Because nobody imagines living here,” said Thaw… “Think of Florence, Paris, London, New York. Nobody visiting them for the first time is a stranger because he’s already visited them in paintings, novels, history books and films. But if a city hasn’t been used by an artist, not even the inhabitants live there imaginatively.”

– from Janice Galloway’s introduction to the 2002 edition of “Lanark” [my bold]

So… I know it’s easier to set a novel in Paris, or London, or even Moscow. We have shorthand for those places already.

As a novelist, you can lift the bones of a city into your story far easier if those bones have been sorted through already by earlier novelists.

But building a new city of your own? Even one based on a real city, with added magic and mystery and myth, takes a lot of heavy lifting.

Like building a cathedral, one stone at a time, if we want those cities to exist we have to create them. On foot, from maps, from history and our bold imaginations.

Who’s up for the journey?

Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov, painting of a busy street market in a Russian town
Market 17th Century by Apollinary Vasnetsov

This week’s links:

Capitalism by Gaslight – The Shadow Economies of 19th- Century America* (another example of a common shorthand, in this case referring to the USA, not all or any other of the Americas)

The Official Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off – SPFBO – hosted by author Mark Lawrence.

Dark Roasted Blend. In case I haven’t linked here before (but maybe I have).

Published in: on May 16, 2021 at 12:00 am  Comments (3)  
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